Guest Blogger

70 Years Ago: Bayard Rustin Built Foundation for ENDA

Filed By Guest Blogger | June 25, 2011 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: Bayard Rustin, ENDA, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Stonewall, Tico Almeida, U.S. House

Editors' Note: Guest Blogger Tico Almeida is a civil rights litigator and served as ENDA's lead counsel in the U.S. House from 2007 to 2010.

Tico-Almeida.jpegJune is a popular month for celebrating weddings and an important month for advancing civil rights for all Americans. Seventy Junes before New York adopted marriage equality in 2011 and almost three decades before Stonewall in June 1969, Bayard Rustin - a gay African-American man who lived in the East Village of New York City - helped organize a 1941 march on Washington so successful that it never even took place.

Exactly 70 years ago today, on June 25, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order barring military contractors from discriminating against African-American workers. The president did not originally want to create these workplace protections. His signature was conditioned upon a promise from civil rights leaders that they would cancel the massive march that Rustin and others had planned for July 1, 1941.

According to historian Conrad Black, Roosevelt became upset when he learned that African-Americans planned to protest his slow movement on civil rights, and even began ''grumbling self-importantly about not negotiating 'with a gun at my head.''' The president first asked his wife, Eleanor, and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to persuade African-American leaders to cancel the protest.

When they refused to cancel the march, Roosevelt summoned Mayor LaGuardia and a small number of African-American leaders to the White House on June 18, 1941. One leader was A. Phillip Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the labor union that first called for the march and had worked closely with Rustin to organize it.

BayardRustin.jpgAt the White House, Randolph declined another request to cancel the protest and predicted that 100,000 African-Americans would march on Washington. After a terse debate, the parties brokered a deal for Roosevelt to enact the new workplace protections in order to avoid the protest. After only one week of haggling over the proposed language, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 on June 25, 1941.

Rustin, however, was not invited to that White House meeting, even though he was among the lead organizers of the march. Sadly, Rustin faced discrimination because of his sexual orientation throughout his career. His bigoted enemies, from Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) to Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.), repeatedly tried to use his sexual orientation to discredit his leadership. Rustin was regularly purged by other African-American leaders from important meetings or public appearances out of prejudice or fear that his homosexuality would distract from the civil rights movement.

Bennett Singer and Nancy Kates' documentary of Rustin's career is entitled Brother Outsider, and John D'Emilio's biography of Rustin is entitled Lost Prophet, because Rustin's legacy is largely unknown despite his masterful work as movement strategist. Rustin not only helped plan the 1941 almost-march that led to Roosevelt's historic executive order, he also organized the first of the Freedom Rides and served as chief logistical strategist for the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his ''I Have a Dream'' speech.

Toward the end of his career and life, Rustin advocated for New York City's ENDA law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation. In the mid-1980s, he wrote to a group of African-American New York City Council members telling them that their refusal to vote the ENDA proposal out of committee was ''tantamount to the filibustering that succeeded in blocking the Civil Rights Act in the U.S. from 1876 until 1964.'' Later in 1986, and within a year of his death at age 75, Rustin gave his first and only interviews about how homophobia had curtailed his influence in the civil rights movement.

Now, 70 summers after Rustin organized a national march to focus America's attention on workplace discrimination, LGBT Americans and their straight allies are calling on President Barack Obama to sign an ENDA executive order barring anti-LGBT discrimination by federal contractors. Prominent Americans ranging from Senator Tom Harkin, the Chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, to Mary Kay Henry, the openly lesbian president of America's fastest growing labor union, S.E.I.U., have all called on President Obama to sign this common sense ENDA policy.

File-Bayard_Rustin_NYWTS_3.jpegIndeed, an ENDA Executive Order would promote the fundamental American value of equality of opportunity, as well as save money for the American taxpayers. If a federal contractor unjustly fires an aerospace engineer just because she is lesbian or just because she is transgender and then replaces that engineer with someone who is less qualified, there are two big losers: 1) the victim of the anti-gay discrimination who is out of a job; and 2) the American taxpayers who are paying for the lesser-quality services of the discriminatory federal contractor. In this weak economy and with unprecedented deficits, the U.S. Government simply cannot afford to contract with companies that irrationally fire or harass talented workers just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Based on the current administration's strong record promoting LGBT equality, I have hope that Obama will sign an ENDA executive order by Pride month of next year, or perhaps even sooner - certainly before the 2012 elections. In doing so, our nation's first African-American president will bring this civil rights history full circle, building on what Roosevelt started 70 years ago, and creating the basic workplace protections that Rustin deserved and fought for throughout his life.

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Thanks for a great post, Tico. I love the way you make the parallels so clear. While an executive order is far short of the equality we ultimately need and deserve as human beings, the fact that any steps at all are being taking on behalf of transgender and transsexual people in this country is great news to me. I'll keep agitating, but I'm also grateful.

I am always grateful whenever anyone keeps alive the memory and civil rights contributions of Bayard Rustin. Just as blacks got whitewashed out of the first drafts of America's history, Rustin got straight-washed out of the first drafts of the history of the Civil Rights era.

Strom Thurmond being the Jesse Helms of his day, his attacks on Rustin are hardly a surprise. But the homophobia of Adam Clayton Powell is disappointing indeed, in that he went so far as to threaten damage to Martin Luther King's reputation in a campaign to shut out Rustin. In order to drive Rustin out of a key position in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Powell threatened to read into the Congressional Record an untrue allegation that King and Rustin were lovers.

The homophobic power-plays of Roy Wilkins, then leader of the NAACP, deserves equal mention. Wilkins refused to give the 1963 March on Washington the endorsement of the NAACP if Rustin was the official organizer of the event. To solve this problem, the figurehead convener of the march became labor union leader A. Philip Randolph. However, Rustin worked as Randolph's unofficial first deputy, and Rustin, a gifted organizer, did the lion's share of the grass-roots coordination that made the 1963 March a success.

Even so, the attempts to cover up Rustin's pivotal contributions was not entirely successful. In pictures of the event, Rustin can be seen standing in the crowd near the podium, about six feet to the viewer's left, as MLK gave his "I Have A Dream" speech. Randolph and Rustin also appeared on the cover of the September 6, 1963 issue of Life magazine.

Today we argue about the usefulness of the slogan "Gay is the new Black" -- but Rustin foresaw this loose analogy, as well as the need for an ENDA, decades ago. Shortly before his death in 1987 he asserted more brashly, "Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new 'niggers' are gays. . . ." [Emphasis mine]

(Finally, let's finish the story about the racial integration of the military. While Roosevelt's Executive Order barring discrimination by military contractors was in effect throughout World War II, full and official integration of the military itself did not occur until three years after the war's end, when President Truman did this by issuing Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948.)

Thank you so much, Tico, for sending in this post.

Error, first sentence, fourth paragraph down: Please change "was" to "were".

Thanks for the article Tico. Bayard Rustin is one of America's true heros.

Excellent article on the kind of incrementalism we need.